May 22, 2015 / 7:03 AM / in 2 years

UK's Cameron launches EU reform drive, admits will not be easy

RIGA (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Friday he was confident of winning concessions from European Union leaders before he asks voters whether Britain should stay in the bloc.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron gestures as he speaks at a news conference after the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, Latvia, May 22, 2015. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

After his Conservative Party won an unexpected majority in a May 7 election, Cameron is committed to renegotiating Britain’s EU ties before holding the referendum by the end of 2017.

Cameron held initial talks with some EU leaders at a summit of EU and ex-Soviet states in the Latvian capital on Friday, admitting that his proposals had not received a unanimous welcome.

“I‘m not going to say I was met with a wall of love,” Cameron told a news conference after the talks. “We have some serious problems with the way the current European set-up works ... and we should be able to discuss them.”

“I am confident of an outcome. It is not going to be easy, these are difficult problems we are grappling with,” Cameron said.

He wants to restrict EU citizens’ access to Britain’s welfare system, opt out of “ever closer” union inside the bloc and to cut EU “red tape”, but countries may be reluctant to make more concessions to London, which already does not participate in the euro currency or the passport-free Schengen area.

Cameron, who intends to set out his reform plans in more detail at an EU summit in June, has said he wants Britain to remain in a reformed EU, but has not ruled out campaigning for an exit if he fails to get the required changes.

He repeated that warning on Friday. “I have always said that if I don’t get what I think we need, I rule nothing out,” he said.

MEETING JUNCKER

Cameron said many other leaders had congratulated him on his election win, but he looked isolated for a few minutes as the leaders gathered for the traditional summit photo.

Cameron held talks with European Council President Donald Tusk and the prime ministers of Poland, Latvia, Sweden and Hungary.

He spoke informally with the leaders of Bulgaria and Czech Republic as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will have a big say in whether Cameron reaches his goal.

Governments in the poorer states of eastern Europe are eager to keep their people’s access to better-paying work in the West.

Cameron will hold talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at his official residence in the British countryside on Monday before traveling to Berlin and Paris for talks with Merkel and French President Francois Hollande later in the week.

A number of EU leaders said they would listen to Cameron but there were limits to what they could agree to.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said free movement of workers was a core value of the EU. She urged everyone to “be consensual and not just try to receive additional opt-outs” at other countries’ expense.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz told reporters debates with Cameron were “always difficult”.

Additional reporting by Gederts Gelzins and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Alison Williams

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